Article -

Who is Elijah?


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







Introduction


The prophet Elijah is one of the most well-known figures throughout all stages of Jewish literature, from the Bible, through the midrashic literature and Kabbalah, up to folk tales and modern Hebrew plays. Elijah has an important place in Christian and Moslem traditions as well.


The Biblical tales of the prophet Elijah (I Kings 17-19; 21; II Kings 1 – 2) present him as a “Man of God”: the recipient of special divine grace, endowed with supernatural powers, particularly the ability to instantaneously appear and disappear (I Kings 18:7-15; II Kings 1). He performs miracles on several occasions; some before the multitudes, others in private settings. Amongst the former, he brings a drought upon the land of Israel and its environs (I Kings 17:1) and calls down fire from heaven upon his offering on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18). Amongst the latter, he revives a foreign woman’s son (I Kings 17). Some of these acts appear to be performed on his own initiative and by his own power; others as the outcome of his prayer.


In all these instances, Elijah appears as a paragon of zealousness for the pure Israelite faith, permitting no synthesis or compromise with other cultures, particularly with the Canaanite-Phoenician culture. Elijah’s confrontations with Ahab, the king of Israel, are primarily focused on this religious conflict (I Kings 17; I Kings 18).


W. Blackmon, Elijah chellens the False Prophets of Jezebel, c. 1990

W. Blackmon, Elijah chellens the False Prophets of Jezebel, c. 1990


Yet even in the incident of the vineyard of Naboth (I Kings 21), which centers on moral standards of the regime, the prophet stands before the king as an accuser and a zealot.


In II Kings 2, Elijah achieves a unique status when he ascends to the heavens in “a chariot of fire and horses of fire” and his servant-disciple Elisha receives his cloak as a sign of his status as Elijah’s successor.


The figure of Elijah also appears outside the collection of tales of his life and works in the Books of Kings. He is mentioned, for example, in the book of Malachi (3:23-24):

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.
He shall reconcile parents with children andchildren with their parents,

so that when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

These verses suggest an important role for Elijah in the time approaching “the day of the Lord”, usually understood as an element of the ideal epoch in the time to come.








Eliijah in post-biblical Jewish tradition

Although a critical tone towards Elijah may be found in some rabbinic statements, generally Elijah has been perceived in Jewish tradition as a very positive figure, visiting the people of Israel throughout the generations, helping them in times of distress, revealing secrets to the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud, and destined to herald the coming of the Messiah. This tendency comes through in the midrashic literature, in medieval Jewish exegesis, and in Jewish folklore, as well as in Christian and Muslim religious literature.

The midrashic literature’s treatment of Elijah focuses primarily on his role in the time to come. This role stems primarily from the tradition in Malachi 3, which views Elijah as the herald of the advent of the messiah. With the development of the messianic idea in the second Temple period, this tradition became dominant as Elijah’s primary role.

These messianic hopes appear to have engendered another important role for Elijah: the benefactor of the oppressed people of Israel wherever they may be. This role is particularly emphasized in Jewish folk tales. Another aspect of Elijah’s assistance can be found in his part in all circumcision ceremonies, which is again derived from a passage in Malachi 3, mentioning “the angel of the covenant” (verse 1).

Elijah’s ascent to heaven (II Kings 2:1-12), surprisingly enough, gets very little treatment in the Midrash and exegesis, and there is a tendency to downplay this episode. Radak, for example, argues against the view of those exegetes who believed that Elijah entered paradise in his material body. Some midrashim compare Elijah’s ascent to Moses’s ascent, while other sources
flatly deny Elijah’s ascent (and Moses’s as well). This reticence appears to stem from the concern about turning any human figure, however revered, into an object of worship.








Elijah in Jewish Art

Jewish artistic treatment of Elijah is extant from the Talmudic period up to modern times; these works reflect both the general Jewish affinity for Elijah as well as the zeitgeists of specific eras. For example, amongst the frescoes in the synagogue in Dura Europos (244-256 C.E.), three scenes from the tales of Elijah survived intact, and there apparently were others that did not survive. One scene depicts the revival of the son of the Zarephite woman (I Kings 17:17-24)

 

Dura Europos, Revival of the Zarephite`s Son

Dura Europos, Revival of the Zarephite`s Son

 

In this scene, on the left, the widow gives Elijah her dead son. Note that the blurring of both their faces and the black garb of the widow signify mourning for the death of the child. In the center, Elijah holds the child and prepares to rise from the bed following his revival of the boy with the help of God, represented by the arm outstretched from above. On the right, the widow, now dressed in festive garb, holds her living child joyfully (and here the faces are depicted clearly).

 

The two other scenes preserved at Dura Europos depict the contest on Mt. Carmel. In one, the prophets of the Baal are standing around an altar on which is laid an offering with no fire.

 

Dura Europos, The Failure of the Sacrifice to Baal

Dura Europos, The Failure of the Sacrifice to Baal

 

The distinctive feature of this scene is the small figure standing at the aperture in the bottom part of the altar, with a large snake about to bite him. This appears to be a pictorial expression of the Midrash that tells of an Israelite heretic who planned to kindle a flame under the offering of the prophets of Baal, but his scheme was foiled by the bite of a snake sent from heaven. The artist emphasized the helplessness of the prophets of Baal by standing them in parallel rows and by their flaccid hands.

 

The third scene at Dura Europos depicts people pouring water on the altar, according to Elijah’s instructions (vv. 34-35), on the right side, and on the left, Elijah’s success in calling down fire from heaven, despite the water.

 

Dura Europos, Elijah`s Sacrifice

Dura Europos, Elijah`s Sacrifice

 

Art historians believe these scenes express Elijah’s centrality in the messianic yearnings of the people of Israel for redemption from gentile oppression.

 

Elijah’s prominence in the Dura Europos frescoes can be understood in the context of the general trend of the murals in this Talmudic era synagogue: fervent hope for the redemption of the people of Israel from their oppressed condition and the return to the glory days, the life of the nation focused around the Temple, King David as messiah, the prophet Elijah as his herald.

 

The ideological nature of this approach becomes apparent when compared with Rembrandt’s approach, which emphasizes the drama of Elijah’s standing alone in opposition to a multitude:

 

Rembrandt, The Judgment on Carmel, 1647

Rembrandt, The Judgment on Carmel, 1647

 

Traditional Jewish art, from medieval to modern times, mainly addresses Elijah’s role as messianic herald and spiritual godfather at circumcision rites. The figure of herald is depicted especially in Haggadot as illustration for the text of “Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations”.

 

Washington Haggadah, Florence, 1478

Washington Haggadah, Florence, 1478

 

Yet the illustration itself does not reflect the open hostility towards the gentiles expressed in the text; rather it stresses the hope connected with the advent of the messiah. Elijah is depicted here riding an ass, with a Jewish family riding behind him. Modern Jewish artists have also depicted Elijah in this manner.

 

Sigmund Forst, Entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem, 1965

Sigmund Forst, Entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem, 1965

Mark Podwal, Shalom, 1978

Mark Podwal, Shalom, 1978

 

In the two examples shown above, Elijah is depicted blowing a shofar and accompanying the Messiah, riding his ass, with Jerusalem serving as the setting for the advent of the Messiah. On the left, illustrator Sigmund Forst uses thick bold lines, enlarging the figure of Elijah to super-human proportions, hovering in the sky over the suffering figure of the Messiah. Mark Podwal, in contrast, using fine lines and a rounded structure, creates a visionary appearance, reducing Elijah’s proportions and representing him as an escort walking before a noble Messiah; these small images are joined by additional miniature symbols such as a lion and a lamb (Is. 11), pomegranates and hands in a gesture of the blessing for peace. The primary element in Podwal’s illustration is the gates of Jerusalem, a secondary element for Forst. Thus, these two artists attribute divergent meanings to Elijah’s image as herald of the Messiah: Forst, a refugee from the Nazis, expresses the yearning for an end to the sorrows of Exile, while Podwal, in the 1970’s, looks forward to a future characterized by peace.

 

This same passage in the Passover Haggadah served as inspiration for Jewish artists who crafted Elijah’s Goblets’ expressing primarily a sense of majesty and splendor. This sense is also expressed in Elijah’s Thrones.

 

Rothschild Miscellany, Circumcision, 1470-1480

Rothschild Miscellany, Circumcision, 1470-1480

Chair of Elijah, Palestine, Nineteenth Century

Chair of Elijah, Palestine, Nineteenth Century

 

As mentioned, Elijah’s continual presence is connected to the tradition that the prophet did not die, but was taken alive to heaven. Thus, he visits Jews in all generations in times of trouble and danger as well as times of celebration, and continues to watch over Israel’s relations with God, by participating in the foundational ritual of Covenantal circumcision. This participation is expressed in the Thrones of Elijah shown above – on the left from the Rothschild Collection, created in Italy during the Renaissance, and on the right in a photograph of a Throne of Elijah constructed in the Land of Israel in the nineteenth century.

 

In the work of the modern Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, the image of Elijah, who watches over the Jews in every generation, merges with the image of the Wandering Jew:

 

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1913-1914

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1913-1914

Marc Chagall, Elijah the Prophet, 1914-1916

Marc Chagall, Elijah the Prophet, 1914-1916

 

On the left, the figure with the sack and the staff hovering over the Jewish village Vitebsk is not identified; it passes over the snow-covered road from the direction of an impressive Russian church toward a large house, fenced off and shuttered (apparently a synagogue). In this manner, the artist emphasizes the vulnerable condition of the Jews in the time of his childhood, who, like him, were on the verge of becoming refugees. Thus it appears that the hovering figure is the Wandering Jew. In the picture on the right, the hovering figure waving its hand in blessing (not holding anything but accompanied by a Torah scroll), is identified as the prophet Elijah. In both cases, the image watches over the Jews from above, as in various Jewish traditions regarding Elijah.

 

Under the influence of the Christian artistic traditions that he encountered in Paris, Chagall also treated stories of Elijah which were not employed in Jewish art, such as his nourishment by an angel on the way to Horeb (I Kings 19) and his ascent to heaven (II Kings 2).

 

Marc Chagall, Elijah in the Desert, 1931/1956

Marc Chagall, Elijah in the Desert, 1931/1956

Marc Chagall, Chariot of Fire, 1956

Marc Chagall, Chariot of Fire, 1956

 









Elijah in Christian and Muslim tradition


The biblical and midrashic figure of Elijah had great influence on both Christianity and Islam, but in very different ways.


From its origins in Judaism of the second Temple period, Christianity drew its fascination with Elijah’s role as herald of the Messiah. Several passages in the
New Testament may reflect the belief that John the Baptist was actually a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. Similarly, various episodes of Elijah’s life were interpreted as anticipations of the life of Jesus and were the subject of great interest and many artistic expressions. For example, the two stories of Elijah being fed from heaven in the wilderness (by ravens in I Kings 17: 3-7 and by an angel in I Kings 19:5-8)) were associated by Christian artists with Jesus’s sojourn in the wilderness.


Early Christianity also conceived of Elijah in these tales as the prototype of the hermit, withdrawing to the wilderness to distance himself from the materialism of civilization.
The divine grace that the Man of God received, particularly in the wilderness, intrigued Christian artists in every generation.


Dieric Bouts, Elijah the Prophet in the Desert, 1464-1468

Dieric Bouts, Elijah the Prophet in the Desert
1464-1468


Elijah Fed by Ravens, Nineteenth century

Elijah Fed by Ravens, Nineteenth century


On the left, following Gothic tradition, Dieric Bouts imagined a very un-Dutch landscape as the background for the ascetic Elijah’s feeding by the angel, a story understood in Christian tradition as anticipating the Eucharist, the central rite in Christian ritual, established by Jesus at his Last Supper. In contrast, on the right an unknown nineteenth century American painter depicted a robust Elijah – the archetypical “rugged individualist”-being fed by ravens in a rather American wilderness setting.


In addition to these stories, Christian artists took great interest in the tale of Elijah being fed by the Zarephite widow (I Kings 17:10-16). Both this food miracle and that of the ravens (vv. 3-7) are depicted together on this illuminated page from the Bible of the Duke of Elba.


Alba Bible, Elijah fed by ravens/With the Zarephite Widow, 1430

Alba Bible, Elijah fed by ravens/With the Zarephite Widow, 1430


Several medieval depictions of the encounter with the Zarephite widow express the Christian understanding of the widow and her son as anticipating Saint Mary and Jesus.


The Zarephite Widow, Cross of St. Omer, 1170

The Zarephite Widow, Cross of St. Omer, 1170


Biblia Pauperum, The Zarephite Widow, 1450-1455

Biblia Pauperum, The Zarephite Widow, 1450-1455


These artists apparently based their depiction of the story on the interpretation of St. Augustine of I Kings 17:12 “For I am about to gather two sticks…”, according to which the “Old Testament” is alluding to the two wooden beams of Jesus` cross. Others emphasize the widow’s compassion or Elijah’s benevolence in the story of the miracle.

The revival of the widow’s son was also compared to the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11: 41-44).


Typological Scenes from the Life of Christ, 1440

Typological Scenes from the Life of Christ, 1440


The story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven (II Kings 2:1-12) received frequent treatment by Christian artists. As we have seen, this story was the source of some discomfort amongst many Jews; for Christianity, however, this too was interpreted as a prefiguration, in this case of Jesus’s ascent to heaven after his death (Mark 16:14-19) and as an expression of resurrection in general. Accordingly, the story is depicted on the early Christian sarcophagus shown below, with the prophet standing in a chariot of fire, waving his cloak, while Elisha, his successor, stands below and to the left, watching in admiration.


A porte de ville Sarcophagus, Elijah`s ascension, Late Fourth Century

A porte de ville Sarcophagus, Elijah`s ascension, Late Fourth Century

In the Quran, as well, Elijah appears as an anticipator, in this case of Mohammad. Here, however, the emphasis here is on his role as a prophet confronting a stiff-necked people, for which he gains divine favor. Additionally, the image of Elijah blends with the legendary figure of al-Hadr. Muslim exegesis identifies this saint as a figure in the Koran, who teaches Moses to “walk humbly”, and is characterized primarily by his ability to appear and disappear instantaneously and by his immortality. Thus, later oral and literary Muslim traditions blended the two figures together.


Elijah appears in Islamic art primarily in one scene from later Islamic legends.


The Hamsa of Nizami, Iskandar finds el-Khadr and Elijah, 1485-1495

The Hamsa of Nizami, Iskandar finds el-Khadr and Elijah, 1485-1495


In this scene, Elijah and el-Khadr together discover the “Fountain of Life”. This tale has very complex roots in medieval Jewish, Muslim and Christian legends; the essence, though, is the belief that Elijah attained eternal life.


In sum, the figure of the prophet Elijah in artistic representations primarily reflects the belief that this “Man of God” attained immortal life and thus serves as a focus for hopes for redemption, both material and spiritual.


Article Sources:

Malachi 3
23 Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. 24 He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.

Ben Sira 48
1   Till like a fire there appeared the prophet whose words were as a flaming furnace.
2   Their staff of bread he shattered, in his zeal he reduced them to straits;
3   By God`s word he shut up the heavens and three times brought down fire.
4   How awesome are you, Elijah! Whose glory is equal to yours?
5  You brought a dead man back to life from the nether world, by the will of the Lord.
6   You sent kings down to destruction, and nobles, from their beds of sickness.
7   You heard threats at Sinai, at Horeb avenging judgments.
8   You anointed kings who should inflict vengeance, and a prophet as your successor.
9   You were taken aloft in a whirlwind, in a chariot with fiery horses.
10 You are destined, it is written, in time to come to put an end to wrath before the day of the Lord, To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons, and to reestablish the tribes of Jacob.
11 Blessed is he who shall have seen you before he dies,
12 O Elijah, enveloped in the whirlwind!

Pseudo-philo "Biblical Antiquities" ch. 48
XLVIII.   At that time also Phineas laid himself down to die, and the Lord said unto him: Behold thou hast overpassed the 120 years that were ordained unto all men. And now arise and go hence and dwell in the mount Danaben and abide there many years, and I will command mine eagle and he shall feed thee there, and thou shalt not comedown any more unto men until the time come and thou be proved in the time. And then shalt thou shut the heaven, and at thy word it shall be opened. And after that thou shalt be lifted up into the place whither they that were before thee were lifted up, and shalt be there until I remember the world.
Targum Yonatan to Ex 6:18
And the sons of Kohath: Amram and Yizhar and Hebron and Uzziel. And the length of Kohath the Pious` life was 133 years and he lived until he saw Pinchas, who is Elijah, the High Priest who will be sent to Israel`s exiles in the end of days.
 
b. Tamid 32a-b
 
Alexander of Macedon told [the Elders of the South] that he planned to go to Africa. Said the sages: You cannot: on the way there are mountains where it is dark even during the day.
Alexander said: I am determined to go; tell me how!
            The Sages said: Take big donkeys of Egypt that can go in the dark, and balls of ropes; tie one end of the ropes where there is light, and take the other end through the dark so you will know how to return.
Alexander did so; he came to a city of [only] women, and planned to wage war against it. The women said: If you kill us, people will say, you killed women; if we kill you, people will say, you were killed by women. Alexander [agreed]; he requested bread -- they gave to him gold bread on a gold table.
            Alexander said: Who can eat gold bread? The women said: [We assumed you  wanted gold --] if you wanted bread, you did not need to come all the way here!
When Alexander left, he wrote on the gate of the city, "I, Alexander, was foolish until I came to an African city of women who counseled me."
When he continued his journey, he sat to eat bread by a spring. He had salted fish with him, and was rinsing off the salt in the stream when they absorbed a nice smell (= returned to life). He concluded that the stream came from the Garden of Eden.
 
Tanna deBei Eliyahu Rabba 18
Once our Sages and other wise men were sitting in the Bet Midrash and debating. It was asked: Where did Elijah come from? One said, From the descendants of Rachel, and another said, From the descendants of Leah. While they were still arguing, I came to them and stood before them and said: My lords, I come from none other than Rachel. They said, Give us proof of your words. I said to them, Is it not written in the genealogy of the tribe of Benjamin (I Chron 8): Jaareshiah, Elijah and Zichri were the sons of Jeroham. And they said to me, Are you not a priest and did you not say to the widow (I Kings 17): But make me a small cake of it first and remove a piece for me and make for yourself and your son afterwards? And I said to them, That child was the Son of Joseph. And with that I hinted to the world that I will first appear in Babylonia and afterward the Son of David will come.
 
Bemidbar Rabba 12:11
Who has ascended up into heaven (Prov. 30:4) - alludes to Elijah, of whom it is written, `Elijah went up by a    
       whirlwind into heaven`
(II Kings 2:2).
And descended—as it says, `Go down with him` (ibid, 1:15).
Who has gathered the wind in his fists - Also, as it says, `As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I 
       stand, there shall be no dew or rain these years
, except by my word (I Kings 17:1). 
Who has bound the waters in his garment? - Also, as it says, `And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it
        together, and smote the waters…
` (II Kings 2:8). 
Who has raised up the dead of the earth? - Also, as it says, `And Elijah said: See, your son lives` (I Kings     
        17:23).
 
Zohar Hadash, Midrash HaNe`elam, Ruth
When Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (II Kings 2:11) - R. Nehemiah and R. Judah said, When the Holy One Blessed be He brought Elijah up to the firmament, the angel of Death confronted Him. The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, `I created heaven so that Elijah might ascend thee.` The angel of Dath replied, `Master of the Universe, now the other creatures will have a pretext to demand the same for themselves.` The Holy One Blessed be He replied, `This man is not like the other creatures. He could remove you from the world, yet you do not realize his power.` The angel of Death said, `Master of the Universe, permit me to descend to him.` The Holy One Blessed be He said, `Go down,` and thereupon he descended. When Elijah saw him, he forced the angel beneath his feet and sought to remove him from the world, but the Holy One Blessed be He did not permit him. So he bent the angel under him and thereby ascended to heaven, as scripture states, Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
 
Devarim Rabba (Lieberman) 11:2
When Ephraim spoke in agitation (Hosea 13:1) - This is directed by the prophet to Hiel, an important and wealthy man, whose father was from the tribe of Ephraim. When he saw the activities of Ahab, and how his wife, Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, had incited him (to idolatry), he repudiated the Almighty and the Torah of Moses and built and gave himself over to the foreign cult that Jezebel had established at the top of Mt. Carmel in order to anger Elijah, who was accustomed to praying to God on Mt. Carmel. But when Elijah came before Ahab to challenge the prophets of Baal and the priests of the high places, the prophets of Baal knew that Baal could not produce fire by himself. What did Hiel do? He stood before the prophets of Baal and said to them, "Gather your strength and stand before Elijah, and I will do something so that it appears that Baal has sent you fire." What did he do? He took two stones and kindling flax and went inside [the altar of] Baal— it being hollow—and he struck the stones to light the kindling. But Elijah, enlightened by the Divine Spirit, said to God, "Lord of the Universe, I asked a great thing of you and you did it—to restore the spirit of the woman of Zarfat`s son (I Kings 17). But now I ask that you `raise up` this villain within the Baal." God immediately ordered a snake to bite Hiel in his heel, and he died. Thus it is written: If they should hide at the summit of Mt. Carmel (Hosea 9:3)
 
b. Sukkah 5a
R. Jose said that the Shekhina never descended, and Moses and Elijah never ascended to heaven. As it is written [Psalms, cxv. 16]: "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath he given to the children of man"; but is it not written [Ex. xix. 20]: "And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai"? And the answer is, that He did not come down lower than ten spans from the ground.
 
Radak on II Kings 2
1)      In the whirlwind - It says `In the whirlwind` but below it says `a fiery chariot and fiery horses`. The spirit of the whirlwind was in them, as it says `Elijah ascended in a whirlwind`, but what appeared to Elisha is called `a fiery chariot and fiery horses`. But the wind is not visible and the whirlwind lifted him off the earth into the air. As it lifts light objects, so it lifted him by the will of God onto the sphere of fire and there his clothing was burnt, except for his cloak; and his flesh and bone disintegrated and the spirit returned to God who gave it. And what appeared to Elisha as a fiery chariot and fiery horses was in order to announce through this that with his[Elijah`s] ascent Israel`s chariot and horses also ascended, as Elisha cried out "My father, my father - the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.` And the opinion of the masses as well as some of the wise men is that God ushered him into Paradise in his corporeal state, as was Adam originally before his sin; in the same way Enoch was ushered into Paradise, and according to Midrash there were 10 who entered Paradise alive;
11) And Elijah ascended in the whirlwind - as we have explained. And the meaning of `heaven` is with regard to airborne bodies, as "that fly in the air (lit., heaven)". And as for the wind, the upper heavens is where the angels reside, as in "praise God from the heavens". And Elijah became pure spirit, while his body was consumed in the divine fire and all of his elements returned to their original state.
 
John 1
19 This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you do not know. 27 It is he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.